We think of the bionic man as an idea from science fiction. Perhaps some of us remember the TV series from the 1970s (The Six Million Dollar Man) and its spin-off – The Bionic Woman.
A great fictional concept but very much the stuff of science fiction – something for the far future. But perhaps that future is a lot closer than we might think.
A few years ago, I met a fellow at the MedTec trade show in Stuttgart. He worked in the field of bionics. During a relaxed conversation at the bar, he told me, with no small degree of confidence, that the day will come when science allows us to replace amputated limbs with bionic replacements.
These replacement limbs will not be simple prosthetics, they will be bionic limbs, fully integrated with the human nervous system, capable of working just as well (and possibly better) than the original amputated limb.
What is more, he believed we would see such technology in our lifetime. It sounded incredible but he was deadly serious. It is not a question of if – only of when.
Limb loss affects millions
Every year in the USA, 185,000 people have limbs amputated. Across Europe that number is even higher at 431,000.
The impact of limb loss (whether it be an arm or a leg) on a person’s life is major. Modern prosthetics can allow an amputee to regain a degree of independence but, at present, can never serve as an adequate replacement for the original limb.
However, it is theoretically possible to develop the technology that will replace a lost limb with a fully functioning bionic replacement. And the day will eventually come when bionic limbs will work just as well as the amputated limb they are replacing.
Human limbs move the way they do because nerve impulses from the brain tell them what to do. When to grip a mug, when to point, when to scratch your nose. These impulses are electrical signals. Robotics also works on the same basic principle – electrical signals, sending instructions that cause a robot to move. So, in principle, it is just a case of marrying the two together to create a true bionic limb, operated directly by signals from the human brain.
But how close are we to possessing such technology?
The LUKE Arm
On July 4th 2017, two US veterans with arm amputations became the first people to be fitted with an early form of bionic arm. The device might be described as an enhanced prosthesis. DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) developed it as part of an ongoing program to revolutionize prosthetics.
The LUKE arm can perform fairly dexterous arm and hand movements, enabling an amputee to pick up even small objects such as a grape, to open doors and to drink from a mug.
A battery powers the arm, but is not truely bionic, in so far as the human nervous system does not directly control it. Control switches of various kinds (for example located on the feet) get the arm to perform a wide variety of tasks.
It is currently one of most advanced robotic prosthetic arms that is commercially available (currently sold by Mobius Bionics).
If you’d like to see the arm in action, I have included a video link at the end of this article.
Developments in the Brain Machine Interface
A true bionic arm would have the articulation of the LUKE arm but would be directly controlled by the human brain. A neural link would need to be created by surgery to connect wiring in the arm with the amputee’s nervous system. This would then enable the arm to operate just like a biological arm.
Ongoing research by DARPA in association with John Hopkin’s University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and School of Medicine (SOM) has demonstrated that it is possible to control fully articulated artificial arms with electrical signals from the human brain. This is not quite the same as a direct, permanent, surgical link but it does demonstrate what will be achievable.
You can see it in action for yourself in a video link at the end of this piece.
The technology now exists that creates a functional brain machine interface. The next step will be to surgically integrate a bionic arm with a human patient to create a permanent, fully functioning, replacement bionic limb.
The first true bionic arms
Scientists at Gothenburg’s Chalmers University successfully developed and fitted a true bionic arm to two men in Sweden in 2020. The arm may not have the full, extensive, fine manipulation articulation of a normal human arm, but nevertheless electric signals from the human brain directly control it.
The arm prosthesis was implanted through a process called osseointegration – that is surgically attached to the bone, muscles, and nerves. In trials the patients were able to use the arm quite comfortably throughout their normal daily activities.
This incredible development essentially provides an amputee with a bionic arm that operates as easily and almost as well as the original limb.
Again, if you’d like to see Rickard and Magnus using their bionic arms, there is a video link at the end of this piece.
The next stages of development for this technology over the coming twenty years will be very exciting.
The three main challenges science needs to address now will be:
- Creating a neutrally integrated limb with considerably more nuanced manipulation capabilities. Here, the bottleneck is the neutral interface (the sensor technology already exists to facilitate it).
- The development of advanced Haptics to provide increasingly realistic sensory feedback from the bionic limb to the human brain. Here again the challenge is the neural interface.
- Making the technology available in an affordable form to all amputees.
So, when are we likely to see a world in which all amputees can benefit from fully functional replacement bionic limbs?
Given the current state of the technology we are likely to see some very sophisticated bionic limbs developed and successfully trialled over the coming decade. We may even start to see significant numbers of amputees able to start benefiting from the technology by 2030.
Ultimately the key will come down to delivering solutions that strike the right balance between their effectiveness and cost. But I feel optimistic that within 10-20 years the lives of a great many amputees across the world will be dramatically enhanced for the better by this technology.
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Rickard Normack & Magnus Niska using their bionic arms (you will need to turn on sub-titles for this one, unless your Swedish is good!)